Robert McKee Reviews the Nominees for Best Picture
As you may have noticed, certain rituals such as formal dinner parties, handshakes and award ceremonies are slowly fading away. They will be missed. So, before Oscar night vanishes for good, let’s give it the attention it craves.
The Academy doubled its Best Picture nominations to hype ticket sales, and indeed two of this year’s titles made billions, but let me review the list for their aesthetic choices: TOP GUN misfired; TÁR should be feathered; AVATAR’s hyper-plot sunk its hyper-images; ELVIS stirred a dead man’s ashes; the FABELMANS fable bored children of all ages; THE MENU took a bite out of snobs, but the TRIANGLE OF SADNESS gave them a shoulder to cry on; the partisan allegory WOMEN TALKING exploited a grotesque, real-life episode of vile male criminality to conduct a remarkably literate debate among illiterate characters. Finally, on a positive note, EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE gave us a grand sci-fi farce. Jamie Lee Curtis’ predacious IRS agent made a brilliant comedic turn. Fortunately, AAMPAS, hungry for winners, invites imports, and this year Europe gave us two superb films. In radically different ways, each story shapes the same thematic arc: The search for meaning and the failure to find it.
THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
Irish writer/director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy tells this story: An aging man, facing the downside of his days, looks back on his life and declares it meaningless. He accuses himself of wasting decades chatting about trivialities with a dull friend while achieving nothing for himself.
To find meaning, he decides on a two-step strategy: First, end his friendship, then compose music. This plan does not go well. At fade out, his left hand is fingerless and his future as meaningless as his past.
(Self-amputation seems to fascinate McDonagh. He ended his black comedy, A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, with a torrent of severed hands. We can only guess the source of this motif.)
Most critics were generous, although some found the film off-putting. Perhaps the meaning of meaning confused them, and when they searched their smart phones, the answer wasn’t there.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Novelist Erich Maria Remarque fought in the trenches of WWI before shrapnel wounds took him out of combat. All Quiet on the Western Front, his world-famous 1929 prose work, laid bare the meaninglessness of warfare. To adapt this masterpiece to the screen, German filmmaker Edward Berger had to answer two questions:
One: A century after WWI, aka “The war to end all wars”, Ukrainians are sacrificing life and limb for their past, present and future. What might a modern adaptation of this ageless novel say to audiences today? Is war meaningless no matter the outcome or does it only seem futile to the losing side?
Two: The first ever winner of the Best Picture Oscar was a war film, WINGS (1927). Decades since, from GUNGA DIN to THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA to THE ENEMY BELOW to PORK CHOP HILL to PLATOON to FURY, this genre has filled the dreams of men and boys with the heart-pounding heroics only battle offers. Most war films, no matter how blood-soaked, are implicitly, often explicitly, pro-war. How can a filmmaker today dramatize combat in all its reality without making it seem exhilarating?
Edward Berger’s screenplay opens with the protagonist and his school mates excited by the very idea of war, fearing it might be over before they get there. To them, fighting for your country gives life a thrill-packed meaning. They enlist.
Soon, one ignobility after another–poison gas, maggot-infested food, septic infections, stray bullets, desertions, executions–kills them off. In the final sequence, Berger departs from the novel to give us this climax:
Germany surrenders, WWI ends. Negotiators set the ceasefire for 11:00 AM the next day. A bitter German general, desperate for one last win, orders an early morning battle. At 10:59 AM, the protagonist is bayonetted in the back.
Nothing could be more meaningless. With that ending, the film expresses its shuddering truth and wins my vote.